Bay Area Lit Scene: Stupid Fucking Bird

What: Stupid Fucking Bird, a play by Aaron Posner
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA
When: show closed on May 2, 2015
Websites: http://sfplayhouse.org/sfph/stupid-fucking-bird/



Review by Janelle Bonifacio, Feature Writer





“For those of you versed in 19th-century Russian dramas, you know this is the part where I kill myself.” One of the final lines in Aaron Posner’s delightful play, Stupid Fucking Bird; it encapsulates the very essence of the play itself. Stupid Fucking Bird is an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s drama, The Seagull, and for those of you that aren’t versed in 19th-century russian dramas, it’s very Chekhovian, loaded with broken hearts, broken spirits, and an uncomfortable intimacy. When I first saw The Seagull, I was attending the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. As intended, it was a small audience, a simple set of a desk and some chairs, and truly superb acting. Many of the audience members found it depressing. I felt it hit a little too close to home and felt that I’d been dropped into the middle of a family dinner when all of the shit hit the fan; it could’ve been at anybody’s house, even mine. I was pleased that Stupid Fucking Bird kept that close discomfort in both the sparse set as well as the modernized language. The difference was the audience had been dropped into an awkward dinner, and though a modern take, Stupid Fucking Bird didn’t stir up the same painful truths I’d felt while watching The Seagull.

The plot of Stupid Fucking Bird, for those that aren’t versed in 19th-century Russian dramas, is fairly easy to figure out, but in no way does that invalidate its meaning. Con is an aspiring playwright, hoping to create what he calls a “new form.” This “new form” can’t even be described by the characters; it’s just, well, new. Con hopes to push the boundaries of art and question the very meaning of life and transparency of reality. Con’s wise old uncle, Sorn, laughs but it is obvious he loves his nephew’s enthusiasm and supports him regardless of whether the play new or not. This is meant to contrast Con’s relationship with his mother, Emma, whose motherly instincts of support seem to have been replaced with a sort of desperate arrogance. Emma herself was once a very famous stage actress, and though it was years ago, she still lives in that once-bright limelight. Also present at Con’s, let’s say, experimental show is his mourner-of-life friend, Mash, and simple but kind friend Dev. Con’s girlfriend, Nina, is starring in this one-woman avant-garde piece, and Emma’s current beau, famous writer Trig, is also in attendance.

As with most Chekhov plays, everybody is in love with somebody who’s in love with somebody else and somehow they all are in full awareness of this, but no one seems to do anything about it. Mash views every moment she continues breathing as a constant disappointment and her hopeless and unrequited love for Con only enhances her disdain for everything that continues to live as well. Emma, though mostly self-obsessed, does seem to love her boyfriend Trig; at the very least she feels as if she deserves him, which is perhaps as close to love as she can get. Dev, who we never get much background on, is desperately in love with Mash and follows her around proclaiming his love as much as she proclaims how life is meaningless. Trig is, well, in love with his own genius, with the brilliant writer others tell him he is. The only people who seem to have any requited love at all are Con and Nina. Even that love is flawed; the two of them seem more in love with the idea of love.

The show bombs as we knew it would (to be fair, Con included a fog machine and space-themed music), as the majority of the play seemed to be Nina repeating the phrase “here we are,” just with different inflections. Emma berates Con’s “new form” by heckling and taking luxurious sips of white wine. Con storms off, Emma storms off, Mash chases, Dev chases, Sorn contemplates, but Nina and Trig meet. Nina gushes over Trig and his brilliance; Trig is delighted to talk about himself. The remainder of the act is fallout from this crucial opening scene. As can be predicted and at the risk of heavy spoilers, Nina attempts to seduce Trig, Trig falls prey, Emma verbally slaps Trig back into reality, Emma and Trig depart for the nearby metropolitan city for Emma’s next role, Nina follows under the guise of following her dream to be an actress, and Con attempts suicide.

The second act is at least a year into the future: the next gathering of our small cast at Sorn’s birthday party. Con has placed our characters into very different states in life. Mash has married Dev and the two have kids, Conrad has become a successful, albeit bitter, writer, Sorn is still full of wisdom, and Nina had Trig’s baby and lost it. As with most of Chekhov’s beautiful works, he doesn’t show what would be seen as intense and climactic scenes. We don’t see Mash and Dev’s wedding or children; we only see that Dev is still desperate for Mash, Mash is still desperate for Con, and the two have built this life simply because there wasn’t really anything else to do. Emma and Trig return for Sorn’s party, but we didn’t glimpse Trig and Nina’s affair, or her baby, but witnessed the strain it has put on Emma and Trig’s relationship. We didn’t see Conrad’s suicide attempt or rise to fame, but we see how closed off he is, how reclusive he’s become, and how he is still in love with Nina. We finally do see Nina; she has essentially lost her mind having lost her baby and Trig. Though the circumstances are changed, the dynamic of our small cast remains the same. Love is still unrequited, desperation still courses through each of the characters, and everyone is even more miserable than when they began. In the end, we don’t really get a clear answer of their fates; perhaps the characters are still breathing and moving along because, well, why not.

What makes Stupid Fucking Bird so relevant, beyond the constant drinking of Rolling Rock beer and the almost-lack of a fourth wall, is that the characters, mostly Con, will often say to us that perhaps “new form” is impossible to achieve, even pointing out that they are acting in a play that’s an adaptation of an old play, and that the masses don’t want new form; just take a look at us, the audience. Stupid Fucking Bird is very meta. Con jumps into the aisle often, yells profanities at various theatre patrons, and works diligently to make us as uncomfortable as the characters are with each other. While I do appreciate audience interaction, I do feel it can be a cheap ploy to show how modern a piece can be. The script itself does update the language quite a bit. For instance, instead of Seagull‘s lengthy monologues and dialogues, Bird replaces many of them with one-line zingers and an overwrought usage of “you know?” and brooding silences. Perhaps we live in a less eloquent generation, but this modernization of language is, honestly, lazy and detracts from the emotion and drama of the scene.

Additionally, there is an overall much lighter vibe in Stupid Fucking Bird. Mash does seem at least somewhat accepting of her life; Emma and Trig are moving past the Nina issue. Nina is distraught over the situations that occurred, but she is fleeting right that flailing. Even Con seems to have taken his writing success as a boost of confidence. To me, the entire point of The Seagull is to thrust the audience into a dysfunctional family and hope that we swim with its truth rather than sink under the dispiriting content. Stupid Fucking Bird, though fairly loyal to the original play, lacked that hopelessness and in the end, the anger and sadness seemed trivial and the characters felt more pathetic than sympathetic.

Bill English called the play “comically tragic,” but I felt it to be more “tragically comic.” Stupid Fucking Bird delivers characters that are so lost in their own personal tragedies, whether it be mother issues, writers block, unrequited love or, in Sorn’s case, the feeling that the world is progressing, moving, and he has somehow been left behind. They do have such a sense of self-pity that you want to yell to the stage (and truthfully, some people did) that these characters need to move on and live in the now. I suppose that’s what Con’s play within a play was all about. Here we are, here we are, and as Sorn quipped to himself, “I felt very…here.” That’s what new form is, and Stupid Fucking Bird does indeed do that, reminds us that we are in a theatre, watching a show, but they are also watching us. We all need to be here, create something new and real, break away from the comfort of our flocks, or else we’re all just stupid fucking birds.

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